Saturday, December 22, 2007

DNA - Overview of biological functions

DNA usually occurs as linear chromosomes in eukaryotes, and circular chromosomes in prokaryotes. The set of chromosomes in a cell makes up its genome; the human genome has approximately 3 billion base pairs of DNA arranged into 46 chromosomes.[62] The information carried by DNA is held in the sequence of pieces of DNA called genes. Transmission of genetic information in genes is achieved via complementary base pairing. For example, in transcription, when a cell uses the information in a gene, the DNA sequence is copied into a complementary RNA sequence through the attraction between the DNA and the correct RNA nucleotides. Usually, this RNA copy is then used to make a matching protein sequence in a process called translation which depends on the same interaction between RNA nucleotides. Alternatively, a cell may simply copy its genetic information in a process called DNA replication. The details of these functions are covered in other articles; here we focus on the interactions between DNA and other molecules that mediate the function of the genome.

Genome structure

Genomic DNA is located in the cell nucleus of eukaryotes, as well as small amounts in mitochondria and chloroplasts. In prokaryotes, the DNA is held within an irregularly shaped body in the cytoplasm called the nucleoid.[63] The genetic information in a genome is held within genes. A gene is a unit of heredity and is a region of DNA that influences a particular characteristic in an organism. Genes contain an open reading frame that can be transcribed, as well as regulatory sequences such as promoters and enhancers, which control the expression of the open reading frame.

In many species, only a small fraction of the total sequence of the genome encodes protein. For example, only about 1.5% of the human genome consists of protein-coding exons, with over 50% of human DNA consisting of non-coding repetitive sequences.[64] The reasons for the presence of so much non-coding DNA in eukaryotic genomes and the extraordinary differences in genome size, or C-value, among species represent a long-standing puzzle known as the "C-value enigma."[65] However, DNA sequences that do not code protein may still encode functional non-coding RNA molecules, which are involved in the regulation of gene expression.[66]

T7 RNA polymerase (blue) producing a mRNA (green) from a DNA template (orange).
T7 RNA polymerase (blue) producing a mRNA (green) from a DNA template (orange).[67]

Some non-coding DNA sequences play structural roles in chromosomes. Telomeres and centromeres typically contain few genes, but are important for the function and stability of chromosomes.[42][68] An abundant form of non-coding DNA in humans are pseudogenes, which are copies of genes that have been disabled by mutation.[69] These sequences are usually just molecular fossils, although they can occasionally serve as raw genetic material for the creation of new genes through the process of gene duplication and divergence.[70]

Transcription and translation

A gene is a sequence of DNA that contains genetic information and can influence the phenotype of an organism. Within a gene, the sequence of bases along a DNA strand defines a messenger RNA sequence, which then defines one or more protein sequences. The relationship between the nucleotide sequences of genes and the amino-acid sequences of proteins is determined by the rules of translation, known collectively as the genetic code. The genetic code consists of three-letter 'words' called codons formed from a sequence of three nucleotides (e.g. ACT, CAG, TTT).

In transcription, the codons of a gene are copied into messenger RNA by RNA polymerase. This RNA copy is then decoded by a ribosome that reads the RNA sequence by base-pairing the messenger RNA to transfer RNA, which carries amino acids. Since there are 4 bases in 3-letter combinations, there are 64 possible codons (43 combinations). These encode the twenty standard amino acids, giving most amino acids more than one possible codon. There are also three 'stop' or 'nonsense' codons signifying the end of the coding region; these are the TAA, TGA and TAG codons.

DNA replication. The double helix is unwound by a helicase and topoisomerase. Next, one DNA polymerase produces the leading strand copy. Another DNA polymerase binds to the lagging strand. This enzyme makes discontinuous segments (called Okazaki fragments) before DNA ligase joins them together.
DNA replication. The double helix is unwound by a helicase and topoisomerase. Next, one DNA polymerase produces the leading strand copy. Another DNA polymerase binds to the lagging strand. This enzyme makes discontinuous segments (called Okazaki fragments) before DNA ligase joins them together.


Cell division is essential for an organism to grow, but when a cell divides it must replicate the DNA in its genome so that the two daughter cells have the same genetic information as their parent. The double-stranded structure of DNA provides a simple mechanism for DNA replication. Here, the two strands are separated and then each strand's complementary DNA sequence is recreated by an enzyme called DNA polymerase. This enzyme makes the complementary strand by finding the correct base through complementary base pairing, and bonding it onto the original strand. As DNA polymerases can only extend a DNA strand in a 5′ to 3′ direction, different mechanisms are used to copy the antiparallel strands of the double helix.[71] In this way, the base on the old strand dictates which base appears on the new strand, and the cell ends up with a perfect copy of its DNA.


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One vital aspect to performing efficient recombination experiments involving the ligation of cohesive-ended fragments is controlling the optimal temperature. Most experiments use T4 DNA Ligase (isolated from bacteriophage T4), which is most active at 25°C. However, for optimal ligation efficiency with cohesive-ended fragments ("sticky ends"), the optimal enzyme temperature needs to be balanced with the melting temperature Tm (also the annealing temperature) of the sticky ends being ligated.[4] If the ambient temperature exceeds Tm, the homologous pairing of the sticky ends would not be stable because the high temperature disrupts hydrogen bonding. Ligation reaction is most efficient when the sticky ends are already stably annealed, disruption of the annealing ends would therefore results in low ligation efficiency. The shorter the overhang, the lower the Tm, typically a 4-base overhang has a Tm of 12-16°C.
A 3.0 ┬ÁL sample of enzyme was analyzed at OD280 using a Nanodrop ND-1000 spectrophotometer standardized using a 2.0 mg/ml BSA sample (Pierce Cat #23209) and blanked with product storage solution. The observed average measurement of 3 replicate samples was converted to mg/mL using an extinction coefficient of 67,850 and molecular weight of 41,132 Daltons. Acceptance for this assay is +/- 5% of reference sample.

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